Don’t try this at home.

Dear Word Detective: I’m reading through (and performing soon) an adaptation of Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw.” There is a riddle in the play/novella, said by the young boy Miles: “One can possess me without seeing me. One can carry me without feeling me. One can give me without having me,” and the answer he gives to the riddle is “A cuckold’s horns.” From what I can find a “cuckold” refers to a husband who is aware of or allows his wife’s infidelity. I am still not sure the meaning of the term “cuckold’s horns” and how that is the answer to the riddle. I know that the term, in the story, shocks the governess to whom Miles is speaking the riddle. Any help? — Adie Williams.

Oh boy, a riddle. We love riddles (heads for the door). No, riddles are cool, being, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “A question or statement intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning.” Riddles have been around a long time; many ancient cultures revered riddles, and the word “riddle” itself can be traced back to an old Germanic root closely related to our word “read.” (The verb “to riddle,” meaning “to perforate with many holes,” comes from a different source, an Old English word meaning “sieve.”) The one riddle I can remember from my riddle-loving childhood is “What’s black and white and red all over,” which only works when posed aloud, since the answer is “the newspaper” and the whole thing depends on “red” and the participle of “to read” being homophones. It also depends on there being actual newspapers, so sic transit good riddle. Damn you, internet.

“Cuckold” is not a term that you run into very often, which is surprising since marital infidelity, if it doesn’t make the world go ’round (and we all hope it doesn’t), certainly keeps a flock of newspapers, several million websites and at least two “celebrity news” TV shows up and running. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cuckold,” which first appeared in English in the 14th century, as “A derisive name for the husband of an unfaithful wife.” The feminine equivalent of “cuckold” is the seriously obscure “cuckquean,” which appeared in the 16th century. The “quean” there is related to our English word “queen,” which originally simply meant “woman,” especially the wife of an important man.

The root of “cuckold” (and, by extension, “cuckquean”) is the Middle English “cokeweld,”¬† based on the Old French “cucuault,” which was “cocu” with the derogatory suffix “ault.” That¬† “cocu” is the French word for “cuckoo,” a little bird famous for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests (where, goes the cuckoo’s plan, they will be fed by the duped Mommy Bird). The cuckoo is also said, in folklore, to frequently change its mate, but the egg-swapping behavior, which is observably true, is probably enough on its own to justify “cuckold” as a description of certain humans’ behavior.

“Cuckold’s horns” is a derisive gesture many centuries old and found in most European cultures. The two common versions are holding one’s hands alongside one’s head with the index fingers simulating horns, and the one-handed form, in which the index and little fingers are pointed skyward while the other fingers are held down. Both versions are used to mock and denigrate a man behind his back by implying he is a cuckold; the common “V” gesture pranksters make behind the heads of friends in group photos is almost certainly derived from such “cuckold’s horns.”

Why horns? There are more than a dozen theories. Horns have been a symbol of marriage in many cultures, possibly referring to a wild animal being tamed. It’s also been suggested that the “horns” originally referred to horns given as trophies to Roman soldiers who excelled in battle. Since Roman campaigns often took men away from home for years, infidelity on the home front was nearly a given. It’s also been noted that a horned animal cannot see its own horns, making horns a good symbol of a wronged husband’s ignorance. Or the horn gesture may refer to a stronger man besting the husband in a battle for his wife’s affections. Whatever the source, “cuckold’s horns” remain one of the most widely recognized gestures around the world.

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